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Land confiscation issue major concern for Burma’s rights groups

Originally appeared in Mizzima

October 23, 2012

Land confiscation disputes are increasing in Burma, where all land is nominally owned by the state.

Of late, however, farmers and others are taking their grievances public, staging mass demonstrations and attracting widespread coverage by the media, which is working in a freer climate than in the past.

However, as the government considers new laws to attract foreign investors, activists say there has been a rash of land seizures with up to 3.6 million hectares being taken by government, private companies and the military as the economy prepares for more foreign investment, according to an article quoting activists and experts on theVoice of America (VOA) website on Tuesday.

The latest flashpoint is the Monywa copper mine project in Burma’s northwestern Sagaing region where protest have been ongoing since August.

In early September, hundreds of security forces stormed the copper mine site in search of land rights activists who helped organize earlier protests by 10,000 villagers demanding the return of land they said was unfairly seized for the project.

Villagers said the mining companies have illegally confiscated more than 8,000 acres (3,237 hectares) of farmland from 26 villages in Sarlingyi since 2011.

However, recent reports indicate China is growing wary of the rising rural demonstrations over land confiscation.

The Chinese ambassador to Burma said Beijing would stop backing the Monywa copper mine if the project did not benefit Burma, according to a Radio Free Asia report this week.

“If this project brings no benefit to the Myanmar [Burmese] people, the Chinese government will not support or endorse it,” Ambassador Li Junhua said at a press conference on Sunday, according to a press release posted on the Facebook page of the Chinese Embassy in Burma. “Because it not only concerns the image of the Chinese company, but also the image of China and the Chinese government,” he said. The mine project is a joint venture between Chinese and Burmese state-run companies.

His comments came the same day as an opinion piece in Chinese state media’s Global Times newspaper said Chinese companies need to “attach more importance to grassroots voices” in carrying out investment projects such as the Monywa mine.

Similar issues confiscation issues are cropping up across Burma.

“One of the things that we’re seeing coming up all over Burma is land problems – seizures of land – unauthorized taking of land – by well connected wealthy people,” said Phil Robertson, the deputy Asia director for US-based Human Rights Watch. “All of a sudden they are starting to look vulnerable and people with connections are displacing farmers and others.”

Burma’s Army, which has a long history of land seizures, is also accused of continuing to grab land in ethnic areas.

Khin Ohmar is spokesperson for the rights group Burma Partnership, said the moves are fueling suspicion about the army’s plans, according to the VOA article.

“We’ve been getting reports of the army taking the large [amounts of] land in ethnic areas – building the army camps,” he said. “So the question comes, why are they building the new army camps in the democratic climate; democratic transition?”

However, while activists say the problem is worsening, there are signs that the government is responding to the issue through the creation of the land commission under the Office of the President.

Kevin Woods, a researcher with the Amsterdam-based Transnational Institute, told VOA the commission illustrates the new “political space” that allows protestors to file complaints – in stark contrast with the past.

“It was never possible before for villagers to speak out about this or else they would disappear. And suddenly now it’s possible – not of course without intimidation from authority figures, but people are not disappearing from raising these issues and it’s having a kind of domino effect in terms of other villagers,” said Woods.

Of particular concern is the $50 billion, 250 square kilometer Dawei Special Economic Zone in southeastern Burma.

A Transnational Institute report said the Thai-backed project is putting more than 30,000 people, 20 primary schools and numerous temples, at risk of being displaced, according to VOA.

The Dawei Development Corp said it is building new accommodations for those displaced along with lump sum payments, but residents fear a loss of their livelihoods.

But Asian Development Bank economist Alfredo Perdiquero said while land confiscation is a concern there appears to be some progress in dealing with the issue.

“The situation will improve for several reasons. You can see already people are starting to become more aware of their rights. The media is more open. So when there is some land confiscation – which is very unfair – this comes up in the media. Even in the north you hear stories of Chinese investment which is already providing much more significant compensation for land per acre than used to be,” Perdiquero said.

Analysts said the issue remains a key test of the Burmese government’s ability to entice foreign investment and create a government body to address the complaints of the country’s citizens, said VOA.

View the original article here.

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